Am I Manager?

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The promotion to manager is one that many individual contributors look forward to with much anticipation, hope, and planning. They cannot wait to get the recognition for their hard work–to finally have authority and autonomy to get things done. But most are in for a rude awakening. So stark is the transition from individual contributor to manager, many new managers are surprised to discover just how much they have to learn. As one new manager put it, “I never knew a promotion could be so painful.”

In Becoming a Manager, 2nd Edition, Linda A. Hill offers readers an inside look at the stressful, often frustrating, realities of the managerial journey, chronicling the tribulations and triumphs faced by new managers in their first year on the job. When new managers speak for themselves, they learn that becoming a manager is more than a demanding intellectual exercise–that it actually requires profound personal transformation. Released 10 years after the original publication of Becoming a Manager, this revised edition also addresses the toughest challenges new managers face, and offers insights for those seeking to embark on a managerial journey of continual self-discovery and development.

LEARNING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A MANAGER

Most new managers have a simplistic and incomplete picture of what it means to become a manager. Their expectations are often shaped by the rights and privileges they associate with formal authority, as opposed to the duties and obligations management entails. They often have limited appreciation for what it means to be managers of people as opposed to “doers,” to focus on getting things done through others as opposed to managing a task. Many struggle to reconcile these misconceptions with the realities of managerial life, and initially they feel overwhelmed by the myriad expectations of subordinates, bosses, and peers.

Subordinates’ Expectations

While new managers often see their direct reports as “very needy and demanding,” in fact it is subordinates who typically have a more accurate picture of managerial rights and responsibilities. They expect their managers to create environments that support individual and team success, both professional and financial. Subordinates are keenly aware of new managers’ tendency to cling to a “doer” role instead of appropriately delegating. Subordinates have legitimate concerns about the limited attention new managers proactively pay to managing peer and superior relationships in order to secure resources or solve conflicts that inevitably arise.

Superiors’ Expectations

Superiors expect new managers to assume full responsibility and accountability for the welfare of their unit. In addition, they make it clear that it is the manager’s responsibility to align the unit’s agenda with that of the organization. Many new managers describe these conversations with superiors as simultaneously “exhilarating and scary.” Although they crave the autonomy to make decisions, they often do not feel on top of their jobs. Most are also surprised by the variety–and seeming subjectivity–of the metrics by which they are evaluated. As one put it, “I am paid for making the [financial] numbers . . . but my boss devotes a disproportionate amount of attention to other issues. . . . 50 percent on people and 30 percent on administration and compliance.” Few understand that their role also requires managing relationships with peers outside the unit and other superiors in the organization.

Peer Expectations

Many new managers feel unprepared to manage the expectations of a diverse range of peers. Although new managers are expected to be ambassadors for their own unit, peers still expect them to appreciate and account for the particular interests and concerns of other units. Like superiors, peers see new managers as network builders, whose job is to ensure not only that the unit’s agenda is fulfilled, but also the organization’s mission.

Finding a Managerial Identity

It is by confronting these conflicting expectations, and working through them on a daily basis, that individuals learn what management really entails. Instead of gaining new authority and autonomy, new managers describe feeling constrained by interdependencies, enmeshed in a web of relationships with people both inside and outside the organization, over many of whom they lack formal authority. As their daily routines become pressured, hectic, and fragmented due to relentless competing demands, many new managers find themselves missing the relative freedom of being an individual contributor.

As new managers work to reconcile these competing demands they begin to redefine their responsibilities. They come to realize that their role is to set an agenda, make choices and manage tradeoffs, and to build the network of relationships necessary to fulfill that agenda. Addressing these new responsibilities takes considerable time and attention, but once new managers face making decisions–even some inevitably unpopular ones–most begin to find their own voice and point of view. Still, even as they begin to assume the dual role of “people manager” and “business person,” many focus their network building responsibilities on managing down, at times perilously neglecting superior and peer relationships.

DEVELOPING INTERPERSONAL JUDGMENT

Exercising authority can be challenging for new managers because it requires developing the interpersonal judgment needed to influence people. No longer individual contributors, they cannot rely on their stellar track records as doers and technical competencies as their primary sources of power. Learning how to build an engaged team and get things done through a significant number of people represent challenges that new managers must master through trial and error.

In their first year on the job, most new managers quickly discover the need to build and nurture relationships with their subordinates. They discover, the hard way, that relying on their formal authority and the financial incentives they control to exercise influence can have unintended negative consequences. Eventually, they come to appreciate the benefits of empowering others in order to establish commitment, not only control. Still, as they attempt to build emotional bridges and connections, many new managers find that they have much to learn about how to motivate or inspire subordinates to pursue mutually agreed-upon goals.

Managing individual subordinates’ performance presents another set of interpersonal challenges. When new managers discover the vast range of talents, motivations, styles, and temperaments that exist within one team, effectively managing that diversity is inevitably a puzzle. They realize tactics that work with one subordinate can fail dismally with another. Over time, new managers learn that to treat people fairly is to treat people differently. By accepting and discerning these key differences, they discover that each person needs and wants something different from a boss.

Even experienced managers find working with subordinates who are not performing to standard time-consuming and frustrating. It is not surprising, then, that new managers can find all their time and energy consumed by a problem subordinate and the related impact on their group. Diagnosing the root cause of poor performance, and figuring out how to give constructive feedback and coaching, is challenging for new managers, as is learning how to hold subordinates accountable while tolerating reasonable missteps. And firing a subordinate is often one of the most taxing events of a new manager’s experience.

Delegation and Control

It is an unfortunate fact that while many new managers recognize the value of delegating, few are particularly gifted at it. Many new managers have difficulty shedding their identify as doers and experts, not to mention letting go of the tasks they enjoy and already do well. Delegation involves a number of complex judgments–figuring out who can be trusted to do what, and when and how to constructively follow-up–and learning how to do it effectively, as one new manager described, is often a torturous “weaning process.”

As the months go by and new managers find it ever more difficult to keep their technical or functional skills on the cutting edge, most find themselves forced by circumstances to delegate more. But new managers still have much to learn about balancing delegation and managerial control. They have to practice giving the correct length of rope to different subordinates–too short and one will feel over-controlled, too long and another will feel supported and neglected.

Confronting the Personal Side of Management

New managers are often caught off guard by the personal transformation that is required of them during the transition from producer to manager. At first, most do not appreciate that in consenting to new job responsibilities they are also making a commitment to form a new professional identity. “Will I like management?” and “Will I be good at management?” are the questions they ask themselves early on. But very soon, as they confront the realities of their new role, they become plagued by a more unsettling question: “Who am I becoming?” Only through on-the-job experience do they learn the answer.

Many managers discover new sides of themselves during their first year in management, gaining insight into their motivations, abilities, and shortcomings. Although like most of us they find it difficult to admit shortcomings or recognize their own limitations, over time they are relieved to see that they are getting better at matching their intent with their impact. Most find it affirming to discover new capabilities and motivations–how satisfying it can be to develop others, for instance.

This transformation does not come about without psychological or physical symptoms. The first year of management can be a time of anxiety, isolation, and emotional upheaval. Some managers even begin to question their career choices. They realize it is far from easy being the person with ultimate authority and responsibility, the one with power over other people’s lives and careers. Some of these negatives emotions and stresses may never truly recede, but learning how to cope with them is one of the most important lessons new managers will learn.

By the end of their first year on the job, most managers begin to feel more capable in their role. Although on bad days many find it easy to regress to the familiar and comfortable role of doer, the stresses of management no longer seem so debilitating. At this stage, most new managers are pleased by their personal growth and adaptability, their resiliency and capacity to learn. However, most recognize that there is still much work to be done.

MANAGING THE TRANSFORMATION

As companies come to understand that executives are shaped profoundly by their first management positions, many are beginning to offer new managers more training and access to developmental relationships. New managers are as desperate for training that addresses the intellectual and emotional challenges of becoming a manager, as they are for help in making sound business decisions. Since on-the-job experience counts so heavily in acquiring managerial knowledge and skills, they need to live it in order to learn it. Still, training opportunities, strong developmental relationships, and candid feedback from trusted superiors and peers can help to alert them to some of the common misconceptions and missteps to avoid.

All too often, rightly or wrongly, new managers are reluctant to ask for help lest they look like a “promotion mistake.” They believe there are few safe havens in which to admit their deepest fears and insecurities. It is no surprise that they often view the current boss as a threat, not an ally in their development. However, soon managers learn how difficult it is to navigate the transition to management without constructive feedback and social support. Over time, they learn how to rely on trustworthy peers and former bosses for coaching and mentoring.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS OF MANAGEMENT

After one year on the job, most new managers can begin to tell the myths from the realities of what it means to be a manager. Importantly, they realize their experience is not unique–overcoming doubt and insecurity is something all new managers must do before they can thrive. Nevertheless, many continue to struggle with some common challenges.

Exercising Influence without Formal Authority

When solo performers step into a management role, they lose the luxury of worrying mostly about their own concerns. Many new managers experience a rude shock when they discover that their expertise and track record no longer carry the same clout–that they must establish their credibility anew. And in order to reconcile the competing interests and interdependencies that exist in the organization, many times they must learn how to exercise influence without formal authority. In a sense, they must become “political”–to diagnose and understand the political dynamics at play in their organizations, and then develop and exercise the sources of power necessary to navigate them.

Managers should be neither naïve nor cynical about organizational politics, the reality being that all organizations are inherently political to some degree. When conflicts arise, new managers need to understand that their ambition is not to eliminate the conflict, but to determine the most effective way to manage it in the best interest of their organization.

For new managers, identifying interdependencies is one key to accomplishing an agenda and building credible, productive relationships with peers and superiors. And having no formal authority over these key players, new managers have to work at developing other personal and positional sources of power and influence.

Building an Effective Team

One of the most important managerial tasks is ensuring that the team’s collective work is greater than the sum of each individual member’s contribution. However, many new managers think of their group of direct reports as a “team” by name only. For much of their first year on the job, many new managers fail to recognize, much less address, their team-building responsibilities. Instead, they conceive of their role as building the most effective relationships they can with each individual subordinate, and erroneously equate managing the team with managing the individuals that comprise it.

To move from managing many individual subordinates to building a true team, new managers need to acquire a basic understanding of effective team dynamics and processes. They must learn how to manage the team’s context (make sure the team’s agenda is aligned with that of the organization and secure necessary resources) as well as manage the team itself (design, facilitate, and coach the team). Too often, new managers rely solely on one measure for assessing team effectiveness, team performance. They pay less attention to two other key criteria for sustained team success: whether team members are satisfied and whether the team has the capacity to adapt and learn together.

One thing new managers struggle to learn is how their style or preferred ways of behaving can impact team culture and effectiveness. The most effective managers are aware of their style and its impact. They are versatile and have the ability to adapt their behavior to the specific needs of the team at any given time, a skill that can only be acquired through experimentation, feedback, and reflection. Developing this capacity requires considerable empathy, practice, and commitment–in short, lots of hard self-work.

Learning for a Lifetime

Managers must be proactive and entrepreneurial in developing their talents over the course of their careers by seeking and creating developmental opportunities, experiences, and relationships from which they can learn. They must figure out which experiences will help them acquire critical new competencies. The unpleasant truth is that people often learn the most from stretch assignments, experiences involving some degree of adversity that require them to go beyond what is comfortable.

To conceive one’s career strictly as a ladder to be climbed is a mistake. Those who are best at managing their careers approach them strategically. They know where they are and where they want to go. They set goals, periodically reevaluating and revising them; they continually scan the environment to anticipate what their organizations will need and hence what knowledge and skills they should strive to develop. Instead of focusing primarily on achieving their personal ambitions, they are willing to take risks and seek assignments from which they can learn and thereby contribute to the organization’s objectives–opting for a lateral as opposed to vertical move to broaden their skill set, for instance.

Reaching out for help is never easy, but building a network of developmental relationships is essential for new managers. Instead of searching for one “perfect mentor,” those who are most effective at managing their careers cultivate multiple and diverse developmental relationships–a “personal board of directors” consisting of coaches, sponsors, protectors, role models, and counselors. They spend time on critical relationships according to the needs of their work and development, rather than on the basis of habit, convenience, or comfort. As social learners, people need feedback and coaching from others in order to learn most productively from on-the-job experiences.

Organizational and educational institutions play important roles in helping individuals learn how to manage and lead. But the bottom line is, those who aspire to move into ever more responsible managerial positions need to take charge of their own development. No one can teach another person how to manage and lead–it has to be learned through first-hand experience. Management is hard and getting harder. Even the most gifted managers must commit themselves to lifelong learning and self-development.

About anubhawalia

Anubha Walia, Trainer, Facilitator & OD&L Professional is a prolific Human Process Interventionist, Wellness & recreation Engagement coach carries 20 years of rich experience, and has worked with top of the line blue-chip​ organizations like Honeywell, ICICI Bank, Moody ICL Certification were she was heading ODL, Trainings & Quality verticals. Her areas of expertise include human process intervention, Organisation Development, Change engagement Learning, Team building & Recreation, Wellness & Yoga and Quality implementation.

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